Written by: Anastasia Salter, Pop-Culture Editor
Shrek the Third, for those of you who wisely stayed away, is a recounting of what happens after Fiona’s father, er, croaks: the story follows Shrek trying to escape the responsibility of ruling a kingdom—which apparently involves fancy dress, wigs, and waving—while dealing with the unwelcome news of Fiona’s pregnancy. The first movie dealt with a reversed Beauty and the Beast plotline of love over beauty, and the second movie rehashed that plotline with the added aspect of parental intervention: now it seems it is time for Shrek and Fiona to face “grown-up” responsibility themselves.
This could actually be a promising premise. The theme of facing unwanted responsibility never really goes away in life: whether it’s being a kid dealing with the death of a parent ala Bambi or parents trying to manage the misguided desires of their teenage offspring ala The Little Mermaid, animated films have addressed “adult” themes from a perspective that children can relate to. Films such as Princess Mononoke and even Happy Feet go a step further by relating to larger responsibility such as that of man to the planet that sustains him. Unfortunately, the premise in this case seems to be packed and often forgotten in the middle of fart jokes, vomit, and strange pop-culture homage.
Many scenes throughout the Shrek series—like the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon style combat from the first Shrek and the cameo of Eric Idle as a stoned out Merlin in 3—rely upon trendy popular culture for their humor. Sure, kids in the audience laugh at some of these moments—but they aren’t really laughing for the same reason as their parents, and the element of parody is lost. Many of these moments belong more to the style of Family Guy than to more classic works of animation, and while Family Guy is an admittedly entertaining postmodern pastiche it relies on the viewer catching reference after reference to pop culture of both the 80s and today for its humor.
Much of what happens in an episode isn’t inherently amusing without knowledge of what is being parodied, and the show has a certain immediacy that makes me wonder if anyone will be able to watch it and be entertained even ten years from now, when the scene of popular culture has changed again entirely. If you put an episode of Family Guy in the context of semiotics, where everything is a sign that leads the viewer’s brain to something else, then a viewer today may have the guide to decode those signs—we can understand that the main theme song is a parody of All in the Family and why it’s funny when Superman calls Wonder Woman on not washing her hands in the bathroom of her invisible plane. Without this mental guide, the humor becomes in joke after in joke.
Shrek, particularly in this most recent iteration, seems to have the same immediacy and positioning within current popular culture as an episode of Family Guy. There are a lot of reasons I felt Shrek 3 failed as a movie—a belabored and yet underdeveloped story line, a repetitiveness that is hard to escape in a sequel set after the “happy ending,” a confused message about responsibility that was buried in ogre baby vomit. But none of these bothered me so much as a lack of timelessness that I think of as a hallmark of great children’s animation: multiple generations can grow up on Snow White and The Little Mermaid and Japanese classics like My Neighbor Totoro.
In these movies, there is a developed intertextuality of references to other stories just as there is in Shrek 3. However, the stories they draw upon are ones of childhood and images of myth and fairy tale, and it is usually not for comedic value as much as to shape a plotline in the fashion of older tales. The first Shrek used other stories more in the manner of Disney films, for all it mocked them, building a plot that for all its parody was really a fairy tale itself. So is there a difference between those references and the more pop culture based moments of Shrek? When I returned to watch the first movie and consider why that movie stood out to me as a reasonable story while the sequels felt like forced comedy routines, it occurred to me that part of the problem seems to be in using a comedic reference naturally with a story as opposed to building a story just to allow for referential comedy.
Moments of clever references don’t have to destroy the timelessness of a movie. There’s nothing inherently destructive to the film about using the cameo by Julie Andrews as the Queen to have a sly moment where she begins humming the music of “My Favorite Things.” Using Charlie’s Angels as a reference point for the princesses’ battle formations seems reasonable on a twisted level. Sleeping Beauty’s continual problem with fainting might have been funny once, and Snow White’s use of the dwarves as free labor and babysitting creates some disturbing mental associations that are hard to get rid of. And you have to give the writers credit for finding room to slip in vacant high school stereotypes, the likes of which haven’t been seen since Not Another Teen Movie.
There are also moments in Shrek 3 that contain references the point of which is hard to decode even with background knowledge. In the midst of a montage of women power scenes featuring princesses transforming from rescued to rescuers, there is a quick flash of a bra-burning. This spectacle of fantasy heroines burning their undergarments would be at odds with a fairy-tale setting—except in a movie that doesn’t seem to know who its audience is at any point in time, it’s not really that surprising. The five- and six-year-olds sitting next to me probably don’t know the history of bra-burning, or recognize it as an often parodied form of feminist protest. These kids haven’t even started wearing bras yet, much less started recognizing them as a political symbol. In a movie of toilet humor, donkeys and cats switching bodies, and uninspired parodies of grade school clichés, what place does bra-burning have? The montage seems designed to allow for a thirty second feminist revolution, and so in this case the act is turned to a laughable part of that instant transformation.
What brings these sequences and others like them past the point of laughable to the point where they are detrimental to an already flawed movie is the feeling that each one is forced. Without strong narrative threads, the characters seem to move from one moment of pop humor – or worse yet toilet humor – to the next without purpose or drive. I can accept this in an episode of Family Guy, where narrative has never really been the point: the pop humor stands as one of the central appeals of the show. But in a film supposedly intended for kids and drawing upon such a strong fairy tale tradition, I’m not ready to surrender the narrative focus just yet.
There’s a difference between a quick laugh and a lasting impression. The first Shrek left a lasting impression, and reminded the audience that fairy tales with their black and white morals aren’t necessary the end-all of a story. Even as a reluctant adult, I can relate back to a fairy tale from the perspective of innocence. I can understand the appeal of a story with the black and white morality that traditional Disney animation specialized in. I can also see why Shrek was welcomed for flipping some of those traditions on their head—the passive princess and beauty as a measure of goodness were two in particular that had it coming.
Shrek the Third is the first of the Shrek franchise not to feature an opening “once upon a time” storybook sequence. Perhaps this is because this third installment isn’t relying upon books anymore: instead, it is thoroughly positioned within mass media and embraces easy humor over narrative drive at every turn. I can almost imagine the animators sitting around storyboards for a possible opening book sequence and realizing there’s nothing there: the fairytale’s been lost.